Another in an irregular series of reviews of books I have not enjoyed. Links to earlier episodes are at the end.
Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough, Beyond the Northlands. Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas
This book, bought at the British Museum’s bookshop, was so promising, with such a good pedigree: an exciting young(ish) scholar; a now unfashionable subject that one might have thought had had everything possible done to it; the imprimatur of Oxford University Press; and she’s a Radio Three New Generation Thinker as well. What could go wrong? Well, she’s not backward about coming forward. Six friends make up the dedicatee list, and there are five pages of acknowledgements. Perhaps I’m just from the School of Unnatural Reticence, but this excessive wordiness about herself suggested that this book was going to be more about Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough than about runes and skalds.
I began to read, and was assailed by non-academic sweeping generalisations and tone-deaf jokes. The trouble with this unreadable book is that Eleanor Rosamund is determined to make her subject popular, by making pub jokes about Vikings and blood eagles in between a page or two of respectable research-based discussion. The tonal lurches gave me an identity crisis, not knowing who I was supposed to be. On top of that, the bits I managed to hang onto in between sudden directional change seemed neither new nor based on new material. I have a large Norwegian children’s book about the Sami that I had as a present in the 1970s that covers a lot of what she repeats here. I don’t think this book is up to much.
S I Viehl, Stardoc
This looked like an interesting female-focused intergalactic medical space opera, found on a second-hand stall, which I was looking forward to reading very much. The tension in the plot is well handled, the exoplanetary setting also, the aliens are terrific, and the conflict between new space doctor and her grumpy boss is completely believable. Cherijo the medical specialist turned xeno A&E shift worker is a good lead character, though I was getting a little tired of the old-fashioned approach to relationships, in which everyone is hetero (even in space?). The ending is ridiculously overblown, but by then I didn’t care. The plot evolves into a mystery about an even more grumpy human man called Reever, and then it all goes horribly wrong because … and here are spoilers so I won’t mention them … and so he rapes her. Due to spoilers it’s not his fault, but it’s still a rape, but the unforgiveable thing is that Cherijo is aroused by the rape for several bad reasons, one of which is she has to feel conflicted emotions for Reever for plot purposes. Rape is not the way down that path. I threw the book into the recycling bin.
D J Taylor, The Prose Factory
I bought this after D J Taylor mentioned using one of my books to research it, and I have mixed feelings. As a history of 20th-century literary endeavour, following authors, reviewers, editors and publishers, it’s pretty good (with a massive caveat, see below). It fills in the gaps that I personally am not so knowledgeable about, and it gives a good sense of the dips in popularity and struggles to sell that every writer experiences. It also gives fascinating information about writers whose names I was familiar with, but had never read: Alec Waugh, brother of the far more famous Evelyn, for instance, who wrote an unexpected best-seller and is set up for life (Evelyn was not pleased). But, The Prose Factory took forever to read, as it is far too long, and too inflated with too much detail from the same memoirs (Simon Raven’s works were clearly a favourite). Thank goodness it is only about English literary life, because to have included Scotland, Ireland and Wales would have produced a book the size of a small table. And perhaps it’s a good thing that London literary life gets most of Taylor’s attention, because to have included the writing life of the ‘provinces’ would have chained me to this book for weeks more. If he had included playwrights as part of ‘literary’ life I’d have been reading it till next Christmas.
But the massive caveat about this book is that it is only about men. Yes, the inevitable Virginia effing Woolf is discussed as if she were a temporary man (proving my research on her blighting effect on women writers very nicely, thank you), so that shows that Taylor can write about women as writers, not an alien species. Brigid Brophy and Iris Murdoch are given almost a page each (were they favourites of the author? He doesn’t seem to have read any other women). There is a whole chapter about ‘Lady Writers’, and I do not think Taylor is being wholly ironic by using that Victorian phrase. It shows up the vast gaps in his ‘history’ that he wilfully ignores. He can find the space to mention the names (not the works) of many women authors of this period, but he corrals them into a box for us to point at as specimens. This is a behavioural pattern I have met before, in a thumping tome from OUP, The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel 1880-1940, which I criticised ragefully for the same crime in an academic review once. Both sets of authors are men, probably of the same generation, and both think it’s good enough to separate out the women as if they weren’t good enough to outwrite and outsell many of the men. This makes me angry, to read this occluding, inadequate scholarship in the 21st century. The editors overseeing this book are also at fault: they should have made Taylor rewrite the whole thing to put the other half of English literary life into his book.
If you found satisfaction in reading this (an astonishing number of readers do like my reviews of rubbish reads), you may also enjoy A Small Pile of Duds, which also has links to the earlier episodes as well.